Human RightsPassover

Where were the rabbis for human rights in Egypt?

If you think about it, Passover is a very difficult holiday from a human rights perspective — we have collective punishment, as in the plagues that punished every Egyptian, not just hard hearted Pharaoh, and we have what might be considered a "disproportionate response," the total annihilation of Pharaoh's charioteers in the Reed Sea.

Those of us concerned with human rights like to focus on the midrash about God stopping the angels from singing after the parting of the Red Sea, because his Egyptian children were drowning.  Which is a good and powerful message, but still, they were drowning, instead of just stuck in the mud or something.

There are those who say that Israeli human rights groups that are concerned with Palestinian suffering are somehow disloyal to the Israeli cause.  So thinking about that concept and thinking about Passover, got me to thinking: would there have been a "rabbis for human rights" lobbying for the rights of the Egyptians to have a plague free life?  Were there any rabbis who would have been concerned about the bombing of German civilians in World War II?

Just posing the question clearly makes it sound absurd.  And the fact that the question sounds absurd points to the reason we have organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights today (and didn't have them before): being concerned with the human rights of people other than your own is a luxury that you really only have when you are strong and free.  It's hard for people in existential danger to be concerned about anything other than survival.

Thank God Israel is strong and free, and we can now afford to be in the position of worrying about the human rights even of people we are in conflict with.  But this also highlights just how difficult morality is for Israel today.  I've recently been reading some essays by Ahad HaAm, mostly written over 100 years ago.  He talks about how the Jewish people need a place of thier own if they are to flourish and live up to their potential.  And he talks about the Jewish mission of bringing the prophetic message of morality to the world.  I'm sure he'd be delighted that the Jewish people have a homeland now; I'm equally sure he'd be disappointed with what we've done so far in the realm of bringing the prophetic message of morality to the masses.  Israel is plagued by corruption, the ongoing Occupation of the West Bank and battle with the Palestinians saps the national energy and enthusiasm for Zionism, racism is rampant, and signs of progress can be hard to see.

Thank God Israel is strong and free.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of work yet to be done by the prophetic voices!  May the Holy One Blessed be He (aka "God") help us live up to our true potential, and be a beacon of peace and morality in the heart of the Middle East.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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